I pull into the driveway and see the faded, weathered toddler picnic table upside down in our trash can. Before I’ve even had time to think about it, tears spring to my eyes.
I know it’s time to get rid of it. I remember the April afternoon when my husband brought it home for our 18-month-old daughter. She will be 11 this summer, and her sister is five. Both pairs of bony legs are too tall to fit under the table anymore.
I’m suddenly acutely aware of the pastel green infant swing lying on its side in our basement storage, next to the bars of the dismantled crib and boxes full of onesies and bibs, tiny ruffled swimsuits, and Easter dresses. I keep forgetting that it’s all down there, but not really. I can’t decide if we should give it all away.
I don’t know if it’s time yet.
I always assumed I would just know when our family was complete. Mothers are supposed to “just know” these things: when our children have fevers, when something is wrong at school, when we’ve conceived – perhaps even the second it happens. Our intuition is given so much weight, and I bought into it, too. I always felt, in an almost mystical way, that we would have a third baby.
I’m almost embarrassed to admit that, minutes after I had given birth to my second daughter, my first thought was “I can’t wait to do that again.” When I weaned her at 16 months, I never suspected I had nursed for the last time. That secret, all-knowing, intuitive part of me believed that there was another baby still to come.
Having a third baby seemed impractical at best, irresponsible at worst. My husband and I knew it made more financial sense to stick with two. I also knew that my tendency to try to juggle too many things at once – working part time, writing, keeping the house clean, exercising, seeing friends – could make adding another child a complete disaster.
So we didn’t really try, or we tried inconsistently, on and off for several years. We were spinning the Roulette wheel while averting our eyes. It was as though I was attempting to spare myself the accountability of a foolish decision to overburden myself with another baby, while also protecting myself from disappointment.
We were, essentially, trying for an “oops.”
An “oops baby” was something to be shrugged off during times of stress and chaos: “It’s not as if we planned for him, but really, we couldn’t imagine life without him!” But I knew there was nothing accidental about what I was doing, squinting at a pink stain on the toilet paper so faint it would be invisible to those who weren’t looking as that sinking feeling settled into my stomach.
It was sadness.
Then, days later, it was relief. After all, I was still in bed at eight o’ clock on a Saturday morning while my daughters watched TV alone downstairs. How ridiculous to start over.
I was prepared for an early pregnancy loss, or even two, as we began not-trying for our hypothetical “oops.” That part of my fertility history was something I would never be able to escape. I’d had one early miscarriage before my first daughter was born, and another miscarriage as well as an ectopic pregnancy before I conceived my second child.
But I wasn’t prepared for…nothing. Nothing happened. I had always gotten pregnant easily, even if it didn’t stick. Then another thought struck me. I had assumed most families knew for sure when their family was complete. I had never considered the arrogance of the assumption that every family got to choose.
I began to wonder if I was just being greedy by wanting to have a third child. The adage “quit while you’re ahead” entered my head more than once. Maybe some divine force knew I couldn’t handle another child, that my mornings of burning bagels, missing school busses, and muttering curses over unpacked lunches would be sufficiently complicated by the presence of a hapless newborn Moby-wrapped to my chest as to push me over to the dark side for good.
Maybe it was for the best.
I imagined my abs getting strong and my waist slim again. I imagined my weekends continuing along their relaxing trend, my school day mornings settled into a comfortable and do-able routine. I imagined the vacations we could take with the money we would save. At some point, my daughters stopped talking about having a baby brother or sister.
“I won’t feel like our family is incomplete,” my husband assures me, and I agree. Our girls are wonderful. Our family of four is perfect as it is.
But when I put the tiny clothes in the basement, I didn’t know that I wouldn’t get them out of storage again. I didn’t know that the last time I nursed my baby in the rocker, it would be the last time ever. I didn’t know. I didn’t choose.
Did other women experience such profound ambivalence about their family’s completion? Did other mothers feel regret? I had been so certain that most families knew when they were done having babies – that they at least chose it, even if conflicted about it. This third way had never entered my mind.
Years ago, I had a friend who bred his female boxer, Ana. He confessed to me that after they had sold the puppies, Ana ran frantically from room to room, whimpering, searching for her babies.
I think of the boxes in storage. Maybe if we get rid of everything, then we will get pregnant – a classic comedic parenting scenario. “I just bought a giant box of tampons from Costco,” I will say, laughing, shrugging.
These things happen to women.
I tell myself I won’t feel like there’s something missing. But I wonder if, in a corner of my heart, I will always feel like Ana, searching for the babies who aren’t there, waiting for a baby who will never come.